1000 Miles Away

My daughter had a psychotic break the other day. My daughter has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, so as most parents of children with mental illness know, this kind of thing simply comes with the territory.

These episodes usually start the same way — I get a call or text late at night, saying that she can’t deal with things. I ask her what she means. There’s a hysteria to her voice. It has a strange quiver and edge to it. She sounds like she can’t stay still, or that could start screaming at any moment, even if she doesn’t. She’s rambling and irrational. It’s useless to speak with any kind of logic, so I just listen. It’s the mania taking her on its downward tailspin once again.

While all too familiar to many parents of children suffering from bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies, my situation is exponentially more complicated because my daughter is going to school in another state. I’m long distance parenting a mentally-ill child hundreds of miles away. Unlike many other parents, I can’t go running to her when she needs help. The only means of recourse I have are my words.

I tell her to take care of herself. To self-heal. Take a bath. Take a walk. I remind her this will pass, like it always does. I tell her she’s going to be okay.

She tells me that she has to leave the house. In some ways, getting out of the house is her way of trying to leave a mind that has imprisoned her. And I know that. I tell her to please check-in in an hour. Or at least respond when I call.

She does. This time she’s walking around downtown, at 1 a.m. She’s isn’t near her car, although she says knows where it is. I ask her if she’s going to hurt herself. She says no. I suggest that she go home. She says walking around downtown actually helps her. I tell her to call me in an hour.

She does. And shares her location with me on her phone. This time, she’s driving. I ask her if she’s drunk. She says no. I ask her if she’s going too fast. I ask her if she has the ability to stay safe. She says she’s going the speed limit. She’s driving around in the country. She feels terrible. But she says she’s safe. I stay on the phone with her for an hour. I tell her over and over to go home, gently. Repetitively. She’s not ready yet. But she says that she’ll text me when she goes home. And I have to believe her, even though my heart is pounding and my chest is tight and I‘m ’gripping the phone so tightly, my hand starts to hurt.

As far as what she actually sees and hears and feels and thinks, I’ll probably never know. I am one person removed. I can only understand what she tells me, only I’ll probably never really understand. And I know that too.

That said, it hasn’t gotten any easier to deal with over the years. And it likely won’t.

But the extremely acute angst is somewhat mitigated by a sense of “here-we-go-again” familiarity. I have gone through this with my daughter many, many, many times before. By now I know the drill. I know what to say and what not to say– more or less — to de-escalate her tormented state. Or at least not make things worse.

For one, I have to trust that because she is an adult, and if she’s not harming herself or anyone else, she deep down knows what’s best for her and her own self-healing. While she suffers from mental illness, she still is an extremely intelligent and emotionally self-aware young woman. And I need to treat her as such. That means not losing control of my anger if she doesn’t appear to be listening or doesn’t take my suggestions.

I also have to trust that she probably is listening when I make suggestions, even if she doesn’t acknowledge it or openly defies them. I trust that some of it will get in — if not now, then down the road — while remembering that she has often conceded that I was right, or had a point, on numerous occasions when she’s more lucid.

I have to be honest but refrain from becoming combative myself. This one is hard. When she calls in the middle of the night for the millionth time, I find myself so worried, and so tired of being worried, that I have less and less ability keep my anger in check. Of course, it’s natural to feel anger and frustration when your child is lashing out. But I can’t let it take control or say things I might regret later — if for any reason because I need her to trust me. And it will only be that much harder to undo the damage later on.

I have to keep the lines of communication open. Always. Even when I get frustrated. Even when she’s hostile and combative. When she calls, she’s reaching out for help because she doesn’t know where to turn. I want her to feel that I won’t abandon her — even at 1 in the morning. Because ultimately, it’s the ability to communicate freely and openly, without judgment, that will help her to feel safe when she’s most terrified.